Naida Rutherford, a USC alumna who graduated in 2015 with a master's degree in nursing, will become Richland County's first Black female coroner when she takes office in January.
In the 173-year history of the coroner's office, the role of coroner has never been held by a woman or a person of color, according to Rutherford. In this summer's democratic primary, Rutherford beat incumbent Gary Watts, who has held the position since 2000.
Rutherford grew up in foster care and found herself homeless when she aged out of the program. She has overcome a multitude of adversities, including abuse and sexual and physical assault.
Taylor Spector, Rutherford's good friend, said although Rutherford has been through a lot, she is a "ray of sunshine."
"She's leveraging her platform to educate others on how to make themselves better," Spector said.
Rutherford said she decided to run for the position of Richland County coroner nearly a decade ago.
"I wanted to bridge my love of investigative technique and my love of medicine and being a patient advocate and being an advocate for the community," Rutherford said.
In the past, the position of coroner has been held by a photographer, a county tax assessor, a judge, a bailiff and a former football quarterback. Rutherford will be the first medical professional to hold the role, she said.
Despite her 14 years of experience in the healthcare profession and four college degrees, Rutherford said people frequently questioned her qualifications during her campaign. As a woman of color, Rutherford said this is something she has experienced her whole life.
"I am often the only person of color in a predominantly white environment, and it has been ingrained in me — and it has been, definitely, a part of the fabric of my career — that I must be better; faster; smarter than everybody else in the room," Rutherford said.
Rutherford said she was in disbelief when she found out she won.
"I wanted to celebrate for every woman who has gone up against a male in a position that has never been held by a woman. I wanted to celebrate for every little girl like me who was interested in science, but never saw someone who looked like her doing anything in science. I wanted to celebrate for every girl out there who believed that she could and actually did," Rutherford said.
Rutherford said she believes representation is important because it shows possibility.
"People of color, especially young people who are growing up and looking for inspiration, they should see Black excellence personified in the areas where they are having their experiences," Rutherford said.
While she was surprised by her win, Rutherford's childhood friend Latosha Mathis was not.
"Whatever she sets her mind to, she's going to do it," Mathis said.
Rutherford is set to take office on Jan. 5, 2021, and she said her plans for her first term in the coroner's office include four pillars of change: people, community, quality and finance and growth. Rutherford said she will focus on staffing issues, education programs for forensic science and modernizing the office and data.
She said she hopes her success shows other young people who come from similar backgrounds what is possible.
"You will never be what you want to be. You will be what you work to be," Rutherford said.
Correction (Dec. 1, 2020, at 1:12 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated Rutherford graduated from college in 2010. She graduated in 2015.